Can the Camera Shape the Photographer?

A conversation with Mike Aviña, Chris Farling, David Horton, Hector Isaac and Tom Young

A recent magazine ad for the Fujifilm X-T1 said, “The camera you carry is as important as the images you make.” But among street photographers, it is not cool to obsessively discuss “gear.” We take that for granted – cameras are just tools. While that is true, there is no better tonic for “photographers’ block” than a new camera or lens. Some photographers have truly found their vision when they switched to a certain camera. Back in the pre-digital days you had a camera. It was either a Leica, or an SLR. And you kept it forever. Today with so many choices of equipment, a photographer can pretty much find the perfect camera to suit their shooting style and personality. Or is it the other way around? In this post we hope to discover how the equipment a street photographer uses influences what their pictures look like.

OBSERVE
Chris, you were shooting with an Olympus E-P1. Your work was solid and gaining some notice. Then you bought an OM-D E-M5 in the spring of 2012 and it seems like your vision really blossomed. I immediately noticed the quality of your work ramp up several notches and that trend continues. Do you feel that you held a vision that the OM-D finally released? Or did the new equipment present possibilities the E-P1 didn’t… i.e., eye-level viewing, fast autofocus, etc.

Chris Farling (CF)
I don’t want to diss the E-P1 overmuch in that the E-P1 itself was a quantum leap over the fully automatic mode-style shooting of the digital point-and-shoots that I had owned over the previous decade. When I committed to ponying up the $$$ to buy the E-P1, I made a parallel commitment to being more serious in my study and practice of photography. It was with the E-P1 that I really dug into controlling aperture and shutter speed and exploring different focal lengths and lenses. I’m actually glad I started with a camera that had some clear limitations (no VF, iffy sensor, slow AF, & poor high-ISO), much the way you need to play the $&@! out of a student horn before moving onto a more powerful but perhaps more complicated or less forgiving instrument in music. Everyone starting out wants to buy some perfect camera that will make them a brilliant photographer overnight, but the paradox is that it’s only through working around limitations that you grow and develop good habits. If you start out with everything handed to you, it can breed in you a certain laziness and you’ll most likely get bored and frustrated.

The E-P1 was also my first experience using fixed prime lenses and that more than anything helped me to “see” as a street photographer would and to be able to pre-visualize frames to some degree. It was really a wonderful camera to experiment with and learn on and I don’t think I will ever sell it.

OBSERVE
So you’re saying that a more basic camera can provide a better learning experience?

CF
Exactly. It really did liberate me when I upgraded to the E-M5 along with the Oly 12mm f2 lens because I had much of the basics in place from the E-P1. Most of the gains weren’t surprising in that I knew what I wanted out of this new camera and what advantages it held over the old one. I honestly can’t imagine needing a more powerful camera in the foreseeable future.

OBSERVE
That was a pretty wide lens to start with! Just what are those advantages the E-M5 gives you?

CF
The one thing that I want from a camera more than anything else is versatility. And I include the lightweight form factor of the m4/3 system as a key part of that versatility. Not for me the heavy necklace of an SLR… I like to be able to shoot quickly and reflexively and so I don’t even want the camera to be on a strap. The E-M5’s EVF was a real boon to helping me execute better edge-to-edge compositions. I for one really like having all the settings info available in the EVF, though I know many prefer optical ones. The touchscreen, which allows you to tap a focal point or even to release the shutter directly, added even more flexibility. The almost instantaneous AF (as well as the simple zone focusing capability of the 12mm lens’s pull ring) meant that I could depend on my own sense of timing and reflexes and not worry that the camera wouldn’t respond when I was ready. The E-M5 helped me to learn more about on- and off-camera flash. Perhaps the most useful thing, surprisingly enough, was simply the extra customizable dial and button, allowing me to have immediate tactile access to virtually any setting I would want to change quickly in anticipation of the next shot. Also, it bears mentioning that the rich Olympus JPG quality from both cameras has influenced my color sensibility.

As much as I like the E-M5 and feel that it has helped me develop and execute my vision, I’ve since adopted the APS-C sensor Ricoh GR as my principal camera, reserving the E-M5 for special situations where I want the different lenses or the weatherproofing. In many ways, the Ricoh is a step backwards in quality and features, yet it is so perfectly portable and well-designed in its flexibility (a real photographer’s camera) that those advantages trump all other considerations. Plus there’s that awesome TAv mode that let’s you specify both aperture AND shutter speed… I find the Ricoh is the perfect camera for my style of quick close-in shooting with a fixed 28mm-equiv. and I suffer little when adapting it to other types of shooting.

Click for a gallery of images by Chris Farling

Click for a gallery of images by Chris Farling

OBSERVE
So with the E-M5 you became accustomed to the convenience of customizable dials? That would make the GR a logical move because, since the line’s inception, it has been praised for its flexible interface. As DP Review said, “We’ve often referred to the Ricoh interface as arguably the best enthusiast-focused interface on a compact camera.”

David, you followed a similar path as Chris, moving from an E-P2 up to the OM-D E-M5. Among this group of photographers, you used the focal length closest to what is considered a “normal” lens: 20mm (40mm equivalent). There is less margin for framing errors than with a 28mm or even 35mm. As a graphic designer, tell us how the precise eye-level framing of the OM-D has influenced your photography, especially with the 20mm lens.

David Horton (DH)
When I first started dabbling in SP, I was using a Canon G9 which has a 35mm default lens. I liked that length a lot. When I moved to the E-P2, I opted for the Panasonic 20mm (40mm equiv.) because it was considerably faster than the 17mm Oly lens* (34mm equiv.) and it received considerably better ratings and reviews.

OBSERVE
*You mean the Olympus 17mm f2.8 Pancake, correct?

DH
Yes. Oly’s first 17mm prime did not have very good performance especially in the corners. Although I used the Pany 20mm almost exclusively for over a year (and was very pleased with the IQ of the lens), I often found the focal length limiting. I wished it was a little wider.

The primary reason I moved to the EM-5 was speed. Although I adapted to the slow autofocus of the E-P2, I was missing more and more shots. Although the add-on EVF on the E-P2 was acceptable, it was a bit cumbersome. I shoot exclusively through a viewfinder. So the ergonomic design of the built-in viewfinder on the EM5 was also very appealing. What I didn’t know until I received the camera is that, to benefit from the increased speed of the EM-5, you also had to have one of the newer Oly lenses. At the time I bought I camera, the fast Oly lenses only existed in 12mm and 45mm lenses. The 12mm (24mm equiv.) was too wide for me. I waited for at least three months for the rumored 17mm 1.8 lens to come out. (It was my dream lens.) I preordered it and got it as soon as it released. I’ve used it exclusively since the day I got it. The combination of the EM-5 and that lens is extremely fast.

The other thing I like about the EM-5 as opposed to something like the Fuji X100 (which I also considered) is the ability to change lenses. Although I rarely do, it’s nice to have that option. I always carry the 45mm 1.8 Oly lens (90m equiv.) with me too, just in case.

Click for a gallery of images by David Horton

Click for a gallery of images by David Horton

OBSERVE
It is nice to have the ability to change lenses, particularly when on a trip, even if you don’t do it often.

Mike, you have used quite a variety of equipment, from Leica M3 to Sony RX1 and many things in between including compact P&S’s and the Ricoh GR. I know that you are a dedicated student of photography with a deep curiosity about what is possible. Does this explain your variety of equipment? You seem to always come back to shooting b&w and I have the impression that, ideally, film is your medium of choice and because of that much of your digital work looks like film.

Mike Aviña (MA)
I’d like to challenge the conventional wisdom of sticking to one camera and one lens. There is a time and a place for sticking to a narrow set of gear. When you get completely accustomed to one focal length and one camera the gear does become more intuitive, you can set up shots and frame them before you pull the camera up to your face because you know where to stand at what distance to include given elements. That said, smaller cameras have certain advantages: deep depth of field, very fast autofocus, and tilt-screens. There are world-class photographers that have discovered and exploited these advantages. I just purchased a published book shot entirely by phone–the images are superlative. I’ve made 12” by 16” prints from an LX7–they look great.

To answer your first question–yes, I prefer film. The dynamic range of film and the separation of subjects one can achieve with shallow depth of field on a fast lens is a necessary creative tool. I have never used complicated post-processing to add blur to digital images; this is a method that ends up looking artificial. A wide, fast lens on either a full-frame sensor or over film is therefore a must-have. Shallow depth of field however is only one tool and not one I use all or even most of the time.

OBSERVE
Arguably, you can come pretty close having a digital image file look like it was shot with film in post processing. But the methodology of shooting film is a whole ‘nother animal.

MA
Film versus digital ia probably better left for another discussion! I also have an abiding love for small, pocketable, point-and-shoot cameras. As others have mentioned above, small cameras are easier to haul all day. In addition, shooting like a tourist, with innocuous little shots framed through the LCD rather than a viewfinder, is often more effective than pulling a big rig up to your face and clacking away. Even with a small rangefinder, people react more when you pull a camera up to your face than they do to an apparent tourist snapping casually with the LCD. I tend to frame faces off center; when using a wide angle lens this means people are often not sure they are in the shot because it isn’t clear you are shooting at them. The shooter and the subject have a complicit agreement to the fiction–the photographer is shooting something else; the subject ignores the shooter as long as it isn’t too intrusive. This helps one work close in crowded spaces. Having a bundle of different tools allows flexibility and simultaneous exploration of different creative options.

OBSERVE
You make a very good point Mike. Why shouldn’t we use whatever tool best suits the situation? Some of our peers carry dslr’s with a zoom lens mounted that will cover most scenes. Maybe one of them will comment to the pros and cons of a zoom.

Interesting path you have followed Chris… from LCD framing, to eye-level framing, back to LCD framing. I found myself “borrowing” the small Samsung EX2F I bought for my wife and became addicted to the tilt screen. I find that I am very comfortable shooting from waist level and I really prefer the perspective of that PoV, rather than “looking down” at everything from my 6’2″ eye level.

How hard was it to adjust back to the loose framing of the GR’s LCD screen versus the precise eye-level framing of the E-M5? The concrete canyons of NY offer some shade to better see the screen, but how do you frame in bright sunlight when you travel? How often do you use the optical viewfinder?

CF
I do use the optical viewfinder on the GR sometimes (in a way, it’s less obtrusive and noticeable than holding the camera out from your body) but I have a tougher time seeing all four edges of the frame in the viewfinder than I do with the screen. As wide as I generally shoot, I have to kind of scroll with my eye in each direction and that’s too limiting and slow for me. I also don’t like the tunnel vision that develops where you can’t receive new information about the way the scene is changing and what’s happening on the margins with your peripheral vision. With the OVF, you also don’t see the central AF point if you’re using that to lock AF and then recompose. It may seem like a minor point, but I’m also very left-eye dominant so I have to block my whole face with the camera when using the VF, even if it was a corner-mounted one.

OBSERVE
An interesting observation I have made is how most of us frame on an LCD using both eyes, but frame through an eye level viewfinder with one eye closed. Truth be told, for street photography, framing using any device is probably best done with both eyes open, but a hard habit to get into with an eye level viewfinder. I find an optical viewfinder more conducive to shooting with both eyes open and it gives you the advantage of seeing what is going on outside of, and about to enter or leave the frame.

CF
That is an interesting point about shooting with both eyes open. That may be what I like about using the LCD of the GR. Viewing the LCD in sunlight hasn’t bothered me too much with either the E-M5 or the GRD since the screens can be made pretty bright. Most of the time your own body acts as shade and, even when it doesn’t, you can still easily see which shapes and areas of light and dark correspond to what you’re seeing with the naked eye. I think it’s actually kind of cool having a slight degree of abstraction (less detail) when considering the composition, the same way a photo thumbnail is often easier to use for judging the effectiveness of a composition in editing than the enlarged version.

It’s also interesting that you say you prefer shooting from a more mid-body angle than always looking down at everything. Being 6’2’’, I have the same issue and, while using the 12mm lens almost exclusively for a year, I became cognizant of the great care one must take in controlling the perspective distortion with a wide-angle lens. Even having backed off to the 28-mm equiv. of the Ricoh, I still think that the default orientation with such a lens should be relatively straight on and not tilted excessively.

DH
My biggest gripe with the EM-5 is you have to rely too heavily on the digital interface. I wish there were manual knobs to adjust the ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. Since I don’t use the LCD, I have it turned off. To adjust any of these settings, I either have to hold the camera to my eye and turn the knobs or turn the LCD on and adjust them. Neither option is ideal or fast enough. This is what I find so appealing about the X100 or a Leica. I also can’t wait until they design better battery life for these digital cameras. As Chris can tell you (from spending a day shooting with me), I opt to carry a number of batteries with me than worry about preserving battery life in the camera. I turn it on and leave it on. When I need to react quickly, I don’t want to have to wonder if the screen’s going to be black when I bring it to my eye.

OBSERVE
That’s what evolution has brought to cameras, David. With a basic film camera, like an M3 or Nikon F you have two settings: shutter speed and aperture… and, of course, focus (and film choice). Cramming so many features into a small digital camera leads to compromises.

Mike made a good point about not limiting ourselves to a single tool. Sometimes we tend to set unnecessary limitations for ourselves. Although we may at any given time favor a particular set of gear, I think most of us here have more than a single camera. We always have the option to change cameras if a project or different direction comes to us Having your equipment be intuitive is the most compelling reason for limiting equipment choices. When I saw you this last summer Mike, you were using the Sony RX1. The IQ is the obvious reason why this camera has a strong following. Is it your perfect camera? If not, what would be? The others can answer this as well.

MA
The M3 is, for me, more or less the perfect camera–I am just reluctant to keep spending the money on film. The chemicals also concern me. For an everyday digital shooter the Ricoh GR may be my favorite. The RX1 has laggy autofocus which hinders the advantage of the high IQ and beautiful rendering that the Zeiss lens offers.

Click for a gallery of images by Mike Aviña

Click for a gallery of images by Mike Aviña

OBSERVE
David, you mention that you use an eye level viewfinder exclusively–is that because you want precise framing? How come you didn’t gravitate toward a DSLR? There are plenty of choices in size and features to fit any budget and many SP’ers use them. Was it because you already had m4/3 glass?

DH
I certainly find my framing more precise and that’s certainly one of the primary reasons I shoot this way. Perhaps, the more significant reason is that I feel “more at one” with the camera and the subject(s). I shoot a lot of portraiture and even when I’m not shooting conventional portraiture, it’s very important that I’m in sync and “connected” with my subjects. Facial expressions and details are very important to me; these are impossible for me to see if I’m relying on a screen. Shooting with a screen is fine for shapes and loose compositions but it’s not very precise—certainly not precise enough for me.

The reason I’m not interested in a DSLR is size. I don’t like to draw attention to the camera and a DSLR certainly does that. I’m also not interested in lugging one of those suckers around the city on a regular basis. I will occasionally lust after the IQ of DSLR sensors but the trade off is not worth it to me. I’ve spent the day shooting with friends that use DSLRs and after a day walking 10 miles around a city, they are not happy campers. The smaller and lighter the camera, the more likely you are to bring it with you.

OBSERVE
Tom, you use a full-frame DSLR. While the 5D is not huge by DSLR standards, it is huge in terms of what everyone else here uses. Obviously it’s hard to be inconspicuous. How do you work around that? I would assume that the quality and precise framing a DSLR offers is important to the type of pictures you want to create.

Tom Young (TY)
There’s a number of different reasons I shoot with an SLR. For one thing, I don’t only shoot street. I also do weddings, events, the odd corporate photography gig. I even shoot landscapes! Egad! So while the 5D is a big rig, for many of the situations I find myself using my camera its size doesn’t really matter, and its image quality is definitely a plus.

But for my street work it can also be an asset. I shoot in a town that is really dark in the winter. During the darkest months, the sun doesn’t get up until after I get to my day job, and is already down again before I leave. And I dabble a bit with flash, but available light is generally my preference. I love the night, really, the strong contrast, dramatic brightness surrounded by black. The full-frame SLR lets me work in that environment and still get nice clean shots.

OBSERVE
I would imagine the high ISO image quality to be a must in the arctic. But how do you deal with subjects when they see you pointing that big honker at them?

TY
Hey wait a minute, Edmonton may be north, but it’s not the artic!!! I find that the right attitude is the key to remaining inconspicuous. People may be more likely to notice my camera because it’s big, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will care what I’m doing with it. When I first started shooting street, it seemed that people noticed me more than they do now, probably because I spent a lot of time sweating bullets about what I was doing. I really didn’t want to be noticed. And I assumed people would think it was odd. I hadn’t squared in my own head what my motive was. I knew what types of images I wanted to produce, but I didn’t have a clear sense of purpose. Best way to stand out in a crowd? Look embarrassed or uncomfortable while wielding a big camera, or worse, a small camera.

Click for a gallery of images by Tom Young

Click for a gallery of images by Tom Young

OBSERVE
That is excellent advice Tom.

TY
With experience, that fear has dropped way off for me. Now, when I pull out my camera, I’m pretty confident about what I’m doing. And while the odd person may raise an eyebrow, most people don’t seem to think anything is unusual about what I’m up to. I can only assume that means that I look like I belong in the landscape now. Hidden in plain sight, in a sense, despite the fact that I don’t really try to hide my activities any more. So I think the knock against SLRs being too big for street work is a little overblown.

Mind you, it probably helps that I’m not a terribly in-your-face shooter. If I was shooting Gilden-style, the big camera might tip people off before I could get close enough…

OBSERVE
A lot of photographers feel that anything longer than 50mm equiv, or even 35mm, is “against the rules” for street photography. How do any of you feel about that David? You sometimes use the Olympus 45mm f1.8 (90mm equivalent).

DH
I think many “rules” of street photography are pretty ridiculous. I try not to pay a lot of attention to the rules. I believe all that really matters is the success of the shot. Yes, there is an energy and authenticity that comes from a wider lens that is very appropriate for the street—there’s good reason most of us use them most of the time. But limiting yourself to that perspective exclusively is a bit short-sighted (sorry, couldn’t help myself). A lot of magic can happen when compressing images. It can be a very painterly way of seeing, especially with a large aperture. You paint with colors and shapes rather than objects or subjects. It’s a slower, more studied way of seeing. Saul Leiter is a perfect example of this. It all depends on the mood you’re trying to achieve, the story you’re trying to tell.

OBSERVE
You shoot with a Fuji x100, Hector. Am I correct in understanding this is your first camera? You don’t have previous experience with film? The x100 is a popular camera with street photographers. You mentioned that it took awhile for you to feel comfortable with it. I have heard other reports that there was a steep learning curve with this camera. How does the hybrid viewfinder help or limit your shooting style? Is a fixed focal length limiting… do you ever wish it was a little wider, or longer?

Hector Issac (HI)
You are correct, Greg, I had no previous experience with film or any other medium and the Fujifilm x100 was my first camera. Recently, I was asked by a friend… Why that camera? I didn’t have an answer. I still don’t, but I’m glad I got it.

For most of those coming with a broader photographic background, the x100 was a struggle, for me it was a love/hate situation that still exists. After my first try, I almost sold it, then it was left on the shelf for one or two months. It took me about another three to four months to get comfortable enough to get what I wanted. The main issue back then (cough cough) was the autofocus, well … it sucked, so I decided to learn to work manually and zone focus, rather than sell the camera and buy another… Best decision I ever made.

I’m a bit obsessive when I’m interesting in learning something, so my learning curve was rather steep given the amount of time I spent to learn my camera and about photography in general. The hybrid viewfinder helped me learn the camera’s frame lines, even if the lag was a problem.

OBSERVE
Thanks Hector. I have heard from others that the x100 has a steep learning curve. But those who master it love it to the point of becoming evangelists. Interesting choice as a first camera but it seems that diving in on the deep end and making the commitment has served you well!

There are many ways a photographer’s equipment choices shape the pictures they produce. Even though the street photography genre has been slow to embrace anything other than straight, unmanipulated images, today we have so many more choices in equipment and post processing than we did on the pre-digital era. While it should be easy to create a signature look, remarkably much of today’s street photography is fairly homogenous. We invite you to comment with your thoughts on the relationship between photographers, their cameras and the images they produce.

mspf_logo
OBSERVE is proud to be the featured collective at the 2014 Miami Street Photography Festival. Now in its third year, this world class event brings workshops and lectures by reknowned photographers to the colorful Wynwood Arts District of Miami. A juried exhibit of photos submitted from around the globe is a highlight of the weekend event. Chris Farling and Danielle Houghton of OBSERVE along with Matt Obrey of Urban Picnic comprise the jury panel. A photowalk on Saturday provide an opportunity to take a Leica for a test drive and meet up with other street photographers.

The Miami Street Photography Festival runs December 4-7, 2014. For more information see: http://www.miamistreetphotographyfestival.org

A Few Words on Patience

Photo Booth, Jason Reed, 2012

Photo Booth, Jason Reed, 2012

Rainer Maria Rilke on patience (and street photography)…

In a conversation a while ago among fellow Observe members, Jason Reed made an interesting comment regarding his move from London to the English countryside and how that affected his photography: “if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the years since leaving London is that patience is as important in this game as luck.” That caught my attention for its timing, as I had been reflecting on that matter after re-reading parts of Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” – a correspondence between the Austrian author and young officer cadet and poet, Franz Kappus.

It’s been said before about how street and documentary photographers are able to create their own luck (a matter of attention, of being alert and open to the possibilities at all times). However, one should also be aware of patience in a deeper level. Not only the patience required for the long hours spent wandering and shooting – but also the time required for the work to develop and evolve. In one of my favorite passages of Rilke’s book, he writes: “In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast. I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything!”

I guess the reason that brought me again to Rilke’s words was a need to reflect on what I had accomplished in the last 4 years (the time since I got back to photography after a long hiatus) and on what to do next – a transition of some kind. I had edited my work for a new website, and took the opportunity to evaluate it, leaving room for uncomfortable questions, like, for example, about whether or not I had found my voice.

The process of finding one’s voice, though, is something that can only happen naturally. Therefore the importance of turning photography into a “habit”, according to one’s work schedule and daily commitments. Not all street photography practitioners are able to shoot everyday. Most, like Jason, don’t have enough opportunity to go out and shoot. In these cases, he notes, the process of finding a voice should happen at the pace that one’s shooting allows. “It can’t happen any faster than that”, Jason said. “Even if I wanted it to. I guess that’s patience and acceptance.”

I could relate to his thoughts on being patient as opposed to going insanely trigger-happy. “It would be tempting to wander off and shoot everything in sight”, he said, “possibly ask people to repeat a gesture, or even make images of random obscure scenes, then label it country street/fine art. In other words, explode the limits of the genre into something completely different to justify what I was doing. I won’t have it. I think we all need to stick to the essence of what started us down this road. And that takes patience.”

As Rilke would have said, yes dear sir. Jason seemed to be talking about patience as much as about trust, and the Austrian poet also wrote of how one should always trust oneself and one’s own feeling at all costs: “If it turns out that you are wrong, then the natural growth of your inner life will eventually guide you to other insights. Allow your judgments their own silent, undisturbed development, which, like all progress, must come from deep within and cannot be forced or hastened. Everything is gestation and then birthing.”

I guess we should all search for a (re)birth from time to time. Since that conversation took place, I decided what to do next and left home to go on a long trip. It’s something I feel very lucky about, to be able to go on such a journey, mostly to take pictures. However, even in the privileged situation of being able to shoot everyday, I feel I should be patient sometimes, in order not to wander off, like Jason said. Inevitably, the time comes when shooting street photography randomly starts to feel empty, and the desire to be out in the world diminishes. It may not happen to everyone, I suppose, but it does to me. In those moments, I trust myself to slow down and go on a little retreat, wherever I am, to evaluate what’s been done and what might be ahead, to lay the camera down and be with my own thoughts for a while, or read a good book. The need to go out and photograph must be present, and it can only come from the heart. However, I believe the need can/should be fed. And silence and good books – not only photo books! – are two things that come in handy for that. I believe they may slowly feed the desire to go out to that point when it becomes urgent. And the fun may begin – again.

Speaking of good books, “Letters to a Young Poet” was first published in 1929, and since then it has inspired not only writers, but anyone who has ever felt the urge to create something. In what is perhaps its most famous passage, Rilke begs Kapuz to investigate the reasons that bid him to write: “Find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write. This above all – ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write?”

Yes, momentary pauses to reflect on new directions are always helpful. Be that as it may, the practitioners of candid/straight photography must (italics on me now) go out and shoot. Shoot as much as he/she is able to. Above all, though, shoot as much as he/she needs to. As Rilke taught, it’s the necessity to write shoot that will move us toward something truthful: “A work of art is good if it has sprung from necessity. In this nature of its origin lies the judgement of it: there is no other.” As long as that need exists and is constantly fed, all one has to do is to keep going – with trust and patience.

Marcelo Argolo

Embracing the The Near Win

In this evaluative age of social media and reality television, everyone seems to be an expert and everyone has a righteous opinion. Everyone can judge regardless of qualifications. As photographers, we are constantly competing for a share of recognition. How can we maintain a sane outlook on the disappointment of rejection, or the glow of a shallow success? Art curator and author, Sarah Lewis offers some insight into the process of mastering our craft and why falling short of our expectations can be a good thing in this TED talk from July 18, 2014.

LISTEN

The Critical Edit

Garry Winogrand recommended not looking at your contact sheets for a year. He felt that more critical editing decisions were made when there was some space between the edit and the act of taking the picture. This is good practice if you can stand to take the time. The way we edit our work has a deep influence on our art and is inextricably intertwined with the creative process itself.
When my parents were still alive they would take long cross-country motor vacations to visit my sister in California. My father would shoot plenty of slides along the way. When they got home there was of course, “the vacation slideshow”. We would sit through every slide, good, bad or underexposed. I would tell my father that if he only showed the best five or ten, people would think he was a great photographer. That too was good advice.

As photographers, what we choose to show or exclude from our output has a direct and important bearing on how our work is perceived. Other two dimensional artists are not as tied to show-not show, the edit manifests itself in what to include within the four sides of the rectangle. Of course this too plays heavily into photography and while it is generally called “composition”, deciding what to include or exclude from the frame is as much an editing process as deciding which photos to show and which to hide or discard.

Why is it that while we know that a critical eye serves us best, we give into the temptation to show marginal work? My list of excuses includes:
• I sort of like it, let’s see what others think
• On its own it’s not strong, but it fits my body of work
• “I really like this…a lot, I hope others do too.” Then when they don’t…”they just don’t understand it!”

The first is especially prevalent in today’s world of social media. It is tempting (and all too easy) to upload a picture to Flickr or Facebook for feedback from others. That’s great for photos of your niece’s new baby, but should we subject our artistic output to the masses for judgement? Can we trust the opinions of people who we know nothing of their qualifications at judging good art from bad art? Or does that not matter? Isn’t it ironic that we take classes and workshops from experienced teachers and study the work of established masters, then tacitly ask people, who may have no artistic ability at all, what they think of our work?

A firm and critical edit can go a long way toward eliminating the uncertainty of crowd opinions. The tougher we are on our own work the more conviction we will have in it.

Nick Turpin on editing
www.sevensevennine.com

Tri-X contact sheet, 2009 Greg Alliks

Tri-X contact sheet, 2009 Greg Alliks

interview: Todd Gross

by Jason Reed

Todd Gross (aka Quarlo) has been one of my favourite photographers ever since I started making photographs about four years ago. I’m delighted that he agreed to answer some questions for the Observe Blog.

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T h e   r e a s o n s   w h y

JR – A few quick fire questions to get started.

You took to photography in your twenties and, despite a hiatus for a few years in or around 2005, then found yourself back in a photographic groove. What is it that motivates you to keep going?

How often do you get the chance to get out and shoot? Do you set aside time on a regular basis or do you grab what opportunities you have in between your other commitments? Perhaps (like most) it’s a combination of both?

Does your mood on any given day influence what you see and shoot or vice versa?

TG – The potential for a good photograph (one that I’m happy with) is what keeps me going. I just want to be creative. Share the shit that’s inside of me. You know, It’s nice to have something in ones life, besides the usual get up go to work come home start all over again thing. I’m not interested in football or college basketball or whatever, so there’s time for photography! Having said that, the real truth is I might’ve been convinced at some point, that I have at least a little talent with the camera, I see no reason to waste that.

I shoot whenever I’m not too cold, too hot, too hungry, too tired or in too shitty a mood. Which ends up to be not as often as I’d like! Less and less these days, as I’m working more ( a good thing) than I was, say a year ago. I still manage a couple hours or more a few days a week.

My mood plays quite a bit into the equation. I tend towards cynicism and depression, so that’s another obstacle to get out of the way. All minor issues in the scheme of things of course.

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JR – Does shooting help lift your mood when you’re depressed? I find it can go either way.

TG – If I’m doing well, it certainly does. Most definitely. If I perceive that I’m doing poorly, the mood goes right into the toilet. The reality is though, that I have no idea how I’m really doing until I see the pictures. I’ve had many days where the sun is shining inside and out, only to discover later I shot a whole lot of nothing. What I really need to do is relax. In general. But, I’m a neurotic jew, so that’s easier said than done. I could over-think the operation of a paper bag. The best shots come when one least expects.. or tries for that matter.

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I n f l u e n c e s

JR – You have mentioned elsewhere that Gilden, Parr, and Cartier-Bresson were a few of your early influences. Both Cartier-Bresson and Gilden’s work seem very far from where you are now in terms of your images. Did you try and emulate them when you first started out because I see little of their style in your images today? Does their influence still linger as far as you are aware?

TG – Ha ha. My stuff is very far away from the works of those great gents indeed. I take photography pretty serious, but unfortunately I’m not one of those guys that came to it early and devoted their life to it. Wish I was. Truthfully, I am influenced by every great photographer and photograph I see. Currently, this is one of my main issues… trying not to let myself get lead around by the nose by influences. As far as style goes, you would probably be in a better position to evaluate my stuff than I am.

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JR – Which leads nicely to my next question. Would you say that your style or approach has changed in any material way over the years? Some say that it takes many years (if not decades) to find a style, do you think you have “found” yours – or are you still looking?

TG – Speaking in terms of approach.. I’m still looking. I may always be looking. Familiarity breeds contempt, right? I’ve never stuck with much for very long. Jobs, relationships and so on. I get restless and the cracks start to appear and I’m on to something new. But I am trying harder now that I’m getting truly bald and my back hurts when I sit down sometime. Definitely trying harder with photography and my love Jenny. I might be settling on a focal length pretty soon. And film over digital. Although that can’t possibly last, cuz of the $$$ involved.

I think much less about style. I’m not exactly sure. Again, you might be a better judge.

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JR – Do you think its important to find a “voice” that defines “who you are”?

TG – No. Maybe I’m wrong, but I reckon style finds you or not at all.

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JR – Does that mean you’re happy with the work and your results or is there always a conscious desire to move forward and evolve.

TG – Once in a while I’m happy with a picture. But there’s a whole lot of room for improvement. I have a small library of photobooks to show me that.

JR – Is there any particular direction that you would like to explore or are there any projects that you plan to pursue?

TG – I’d like to nail that approach down. Sharpen my scanning and photoshop skills so things look a touch more consistent. Figure out what equipment I really want to use and earn the cash to pay for it.

As for projects… fuck knows. I might not be that guy. I mean, I love prog rock, but I tend to play the same 3 or 4 chords over and over again.

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JR – Is there anyone out there at the moment whose work you see as an influence on your current shooting?

TG – Like I mentioned, I’m influenced by quite a bit. My dad wasn’t around much when I was a kid, so I’m always looking for someone or something to show me the way.

JR – Do you ever meet up with any photographers in NYC either socially or for photowalks (I’ve always found shooting with others to be a bit weird)?

TG – Socially, once in a very blue moon. I had a couple chats with Bryan Formhals this year. Really fun talking to him about photos. No photowalks though. I can’t wrap my head around that concept at all. Seems mega pointless. But I’m fully prepared to be wrong about that at some point and reverse my stance.

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JR – I hate to ask about gear but what equipment do you use? Do you view your kit as being just a “tool” as many claim or are you prone to gear acquisition syndrome like the rest of us from time to time?

TG – I love cameras. I think most photographers do. The tool matters. Could just be the nerd in me, but I love looking at and learning about cameras and lenses. Taking fantasy shopping tours of B&H or eBay. I think it’s a false conceit when folks say they can’t be bothered to talk about gear.

Currently, I’m shooting with an old Minolta point and shoot. The DSLR I was using is great (in a swiss army knife sort of way) and I’ll probably go back to it at some point, but the Minolta is so easy to carry and use (obviously) that I can’t put it down. Plus, it looks rad man.

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JR – What would you choose to shoot with now if money were no object?

TG – Probably a Leica M6. I had an M2 briefly several years ago, but it wasn’t the right time to get my head into that way of shooting. For digital a D610 would be nice (if a bit on the bulky dorky side of things), simply because I have a collection of Nikon lenses. A digital M would also be cool, but they are dumb dumb money. Judging by what Sony (and in turn everyone else eventually) is putting out, it looks like we’re not far off from smallish affordable full-frame cams for all the proles.

JR – Early pioneers of street photography made pictures because they felt an irresistible pull to do so. Meyerowitz walked out his job after seeing Frank in action in an advertising shoot. He is now a legend and has made his living through photography. These days the streets of any major city seem to be full of budding Winogrands. How would you define “success” in photographic terms (being published? High end exhibitions? 100+ faves or likes on social media?)

TG – Success means different things to different bodies, I would imagine. For myself, success is being interviewed by Jason Reed or someone out there writing me a note saying that they enjoy the photos.

I want to continue making these little frames for as long as I can. If something besides the satisfaction of doing so comes out… great.

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F i n d i n g    a    v o i c e    a n d   d e f i n i n g   s u c c e s s

JR – If the internet were to be suddenly snuffed out of existence would you be content to just shoot for yourself or would you need to look for ways to publish your work in hardcopy?

TG – I think I can safely say I don’t have to worry about that. I mean, as long as we have electricity. If we suddenly don’t, I imagine there will be more pressing matters at hand than photographing.

JR – Is it possible to reach that zen-like state of contentment through shooting for shootings sake? I suppose what I’m asking is once the camera’s back in its place at home, and the prints are processed and viewed, would that be enough?

TG – I don’t think it would be enough anymore to just put prints in a drawer. I did that. I much prefer for folks to see the stuff. That said, having every photo rated with a star or heart is pretty fucking daft at the end of the day. Still, why not go ahead and fave a few of my latest whydontcha!!??? Love me love me love me me me!

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JR – I may be alone, but I sense that there is a shift away from the term “street photography”, you describe yourself simply as “a photographer” do you resist being pigeon holed or do you place yourself in any particular category? If so which one?

TG – It took me a long time to call myself a photographer at all. I thought ya had to get published in the magazines and/or wear a funny vest and cap. Now I realize, I can call myself whatever I like. Others surely will.

JR – Is it possible for a style of photography to be “done to death”? If so, are there any styles that you feel are getting a bit “overdone”?

TG – Everyone can do whatever they like. There is no overdone. After all, the only thing new about a particular thing is you finding out about it.

JR – Aside from posed, abstract and fine art imagery, do you think that there’s anything genuinely new that can be discovered in the world of (street) photography? Or are we all just standing on the shoulders of giants like Meyerowitz et al?

TG – We’re all standing on each others shoulders at the moment, I think. But I have no doubt folks will emerge with “fresher” ideas and imagery as time goes by.

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Street and the internet

JR – What are your views on the way that the internet and social media has affected photography today?

TG – Ya got me. This is a question for one of the real thinkers out there. You know the ones!

JR – Do you think that the glut of online images has desensitized us to what is actually quality work or is the opposite is true? Is there such a thing as an objectively “bad” image or is it a largely subjective medium?

TG – Entirely subjective. I remember seeing Cy Twombly stuff for the first time at MoMA years ago when I was a kid. I thought, what the fuck is all this shit with the squiggly lines? Dude’s having a piss, isn’t he? I still think that, but now I know it’s prob due to the fact that I have no frame of reference or natural sense of appreciation for that kind of thing.

Regarding the glut of images, yeah, it has desensitized me. I have to learn when it’s time to walk away and stop looking or else become completely dumb and numb.

JR – The cult of personality leading to an element of “the emperors new clothes” creeping into the online photographic community perhaps?

TG – True. But that’s just folks being folks.

JR – Some photographers seem to make a decent living from the free publicity the internet affords and through workshops and the like. Have you ever been tempted to take advantage of that and move fully into the profitable “electric limelight”?

TG – I wouldn’t know how. I mean, I’ve been interviewed a few times this year, though I guess that’s a more passive form of promotion? It would be nice to make a few bucks, of course. I’ve always been clueless in this regard. I just want to go out, have fun making some photos, go home, crank The Floyd and dream about outer space. I’m just not the workshop type.

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More about you

JR – It may be my projection but I see your images as being as much about circumstances and happenstance as about the human subjects themselves- is this a conscious aspect of your photography?

TG – I use what’s available to try to make a successful image. Not only my surroundings but whatever mettle I’m made up of that particular day. It sounds maybe a bit pretentious to say, but the photos are more about myself than the subject.

JR – That’s a big can of worms – images being a reflection of ourselves. Many of your shots are not of the more mainstream “pavement and pedestrian” school. What do you think this says about you?

TG – I’m not sure, except that, in general, I don’t favor those kinds pictures. Ultimately, (you tell me whether I’m succeeding or not) I’m trying to exclude distracting elements in order to create a simple dynamic graphic composition. If I shoot people walking down the street, head on, with a 28mm lens, it’s exceedingly difficult to do that. Unless, I get really close. I don’t want to get really close. Then again, I’ve used a 50mm from three feet away quite a bit. So, maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. Ha ha.

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JR – Although you started shooting black and white, now you shoot almost entirely in colour – why the change?

TG – Overall, I enjoy looking at color photography more than B&W. I think I have some ability to see colors well. So I’m running with that.

JR – Alex Webb famously stated that photography is 99% failure. Does that percentage seem right to you?

TG – Maybe 93%. Not everything has to be perfect and in it’s right place to be properly appreciated, you know?

JR – Sounds a bit like Bresson’s famous quote about sharpness being a bourgeois concept. Do you think slight imperfections can make an image more compelling?

TG – Sure. Why not? They can also sit on top of a picture like a festering boil. I always notice the boils. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to enjoy the rest.

JR– Do you have any plans to publish your work (now or in the future)?

TG – Ambition doesn’t come easy to me, but I guess I wouldn’t mind having my own little book out sometime in the future.

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Thanks Todd.

You can find Todd’s excellent images at www.flickr.com/photos/quarlo/ and at quarlo.com.

I get by with a little help…


The importance of community in street photography
by David Horton

One of the challenges of street photography is that it’s primarily a solo endeavor. We walk miles of pavement alone searching for moments of magic. While we’re searching, we’re often unsure whether what we’re seeing is unique or interesting. We push ourselves and question ourselves, alone. We usually edit alone. The whole process can be very isolating.



In my experience, the majority of street photographers don’t come to it with a formal training in photography. And for the most part, I think that’s great. It offers the genre a variety of unique perspectives from a variety of disciplines. The downside is that many of these people have never experienced what it’s like to be a part of a supportive, creative environment surrounded by like-minded peers where people are encouraged to grow and mature together. While I never studied photography formally, I feel very fortunate to have attended an art school and experienced that environment. I learned how essential a creative community is for growth, support, and maturity as an artist.



Critiques are a valuable component to the artistic process. While they can certainly be painful at times, they probably afford one of the best opportunities for growth. There’s nothing quite like putting your work up on the proverbial wall for your peers to either rip apart or praise. The reason it’s so important is that we as artists have a tendency to hold onto our creations too tightly. That doesn’t allow us to remain open to discuss our weaknesses with a measure of objectivity and acknowledgement of what we need to improve.



The moment I started taking street photography seriously was the day I submitted one of my pictures into a street photography critique group on Flickr. I’m not gonna lie, you need to develop thick skin to participate in some of these groups, but the benefits have far outweighed the negatives for me. I grew at a pace that would have taken twice as long otherwise. Of course, online critique groups aren’t for everyone. Some people can be downright hurtful for no other reason than to put other people down. Anonymity will breed assholes. But the core reason to do it is that it’s crucial to receive criticism from people whose work you respect and that’s not easily managed online. If you choose to participate in online critique groups, do some research first. Look through the work of regular participants and note whose work you like. Pay particular attention to the critiques from those people. The more you participate, the more significant the interactions become.



Aside from growing and maturing as a photographer, another benefit of participating in critique groups is that you begin to develop your own voice and opinions based on experience and knowledge, not insecurity. You learn to disagree without being defensive and that is a very powerful step in taking you to the next level.



All these experiences led me to realize the importance of community in street photography. My participation in open critique groups led me to private critique groups, private discussion groups, and ultimately becoming part of a collective. I don’t know if this is common in other collectives but, in Observe, the friendships developed first. Transitioning those friendships into a more formal arrangement just felt like a logical next step.



Street photography is incredibly difficult. There’s a good reason people like Alex Webb say that 99% of street photography is failure. I see no need to make it even more difficult by trying to navigate it alone. I don’t necessarily mean going out and shooting with others (although I’ve learned that can also be extremely beneficial) but just sharing the experience together. There’s nothing like sending your pictures to people you trust and respect and saying, “I’m trying out something new here, what do you think?” and knowing you’ll get half a dozen honest opinions back. I’d encourage all street photographers who aren’t part of a community to consider building one or participating in one that’s already established. Seek out people whom you respect, and open a dialogue. One thing to keep in mind is that the more diverse your community, the richer the experience will be. I really appreciate the fact that the shooting styles and approaches in our collective are so varied. This adds richness to our group. It also encourages us to expand in ways we probably wouldn’t if we all subscribed to one philosophy or shooting style.



I am indebted to my online community. I would not be where I am today without it. What an incredibly unique experience it is to have friends all over the globe that share a common interest and passion. I certainly wouldn’t have found that in the city I live in on my own. For me, it started on Flickr. I don’t know what the fate of Flickr will be—I know a lot of people have left or are considerably less active since the recent redesign—but as far as I know it’s still the strongest and most comprehensive platform for street photography available. I’m not necessarily making a plea on behalf of Flickr but, rather, the community it provides. It would be a real shame if this well-established community were to disintegrate entirely.



Artists thrive on community—that’s how we’re challenged, evolve, and grow. My photography colleagues make me rise to the occasion. They call me out if I’m being lazy, they slam me for shooting clichés, they are the first to let me know when I’m not shooting up to the standards they’ve come to expect from me. This is why I love and respect them. It’s always about the work first. They’re less concerned with hurting my feelings and more concerned with helping me develop as an artist. When you hit the inevitable "street photographer's block" where you feel like everything you shoot is crap, they’re there to help you through it. I know how unique and valuable this is and I don’t take it lightly.



My hope in writing this article is that it will inspire others to form a community. For those who are already part of one, be reminded of the importance of nurturing it. What you contribute is often doubled or tripled in return. Street photography is ultimately a singular vision but the process of developing it is almost always stronger in numbers.

January 2013, Times Square, NYC The first meetup and group shoot of Observe. (Left to right) Chris Farling, Fadi Boukaram, David Horton, and Larry Cohen. Disclaimer: photograph taken by random stranger. Observe is not responsible for — nor does it endorse — the clipping of feet.

January 2013, Times Square, NYC
The first meetup and group shoot of Observe. (Left to right) Chris Farling, Fadi Boukaram, David Horton, and Larry Cohen. Disclaimer: photograph taken by random stranger. Observe is not responsible for — nor does it endorse — the clipping of feet.